Fun and the Games
Thursday, August 14, 2008
In the tangerine light, Ruben Houkes's bronze medal looks gold.
Not that it matters what color it is at the Holland Heineken House, where, less than five hours after he won the thing, the slight, 132-pound judo star is up onstage smooching Dutch royalty. "Now that I won a medal, I can kiss you, right?" he says, not to Princess Máxima but out to the audience -- a heaving, fist-pumping mass of 1,000-or-so sweaty beer-guzzlers who hoot in response.
Holland Heineken House, the 800,000-square-foot party palace occupying Beijing's Agricultural Exhibition Hall, is just one of nearly a dozen "national houses" or "national pavilions" for such countries as the United States, Brazil, Australia, Russia and Denmark -- though each venue dubs itself something slightly different, according to the image it seeks to project.
Italy and Holland take credit for starting the trend, as a reaction to the 1984 Los Angeles Games, when their fans gathered to hang out at specific restaurants. In 1992 the Netherlands Olympic Committee built a Heineken-sponsored dockside "house" in Barcelona, where revelers drank beer and watched the events on TV monitors beneath a splash of orange umbrellas. Other countries have followed suit, swathing hotels, bars and cafes in national bunting. Athletes prance in, bearing Olympic bling; political officials shake their hands; and rowdy, rooting fans clamor for autographs.
While the Dutch "orangeheads" (a nod to the Dutch royal family, which extends back to William of Orange) make partying their main mission, others have different goals. The Swiss want their house to attract vacation-planning Chinese; the Russians aim to show viewers back home that their athletes are having a swell time; Casa Brasil hopes to woo International Olympic Committee officials about a future bid; the Canadian Pavilion is about networking in China's expanding market; and the Americans -- wouldn't you know it? -- are far from welcoming (there's tight security, people), as VIPs schmooze for future sponsorships.
And in Beijing this year, nearly every house is the largest it has ever been. Switzerland occupies a former military factory. Team USA has settled into a dark, three-story karaoke-style nightclub. Britain serves gin and tonics from a Lucite bar plopped in the middle of a traditional courtyard-style mansion. Casa Italia is in an exhibition hall fronted by a Chinese rocket. (Inside, there are opera singers, a wine bar, a gelato stand . . . and a Ferrari.) And the Bosco Sport-sponsored Russia House -- where vodka is free, dancing is popular and access comes via boat rowed across a lake -- is a step up from even two years ago at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, where the team was feted in a three-story playpen complete with ice rink.
But there's always one house that takes the gold for the sport of partying. In Salt Lake City, Holland paid to commandeer its own golf course. Its two-week bash on a yacht in Sydney Harbor in 2000 was declared the party of the games by Sports Illustrated. In Turin, when Holland's house reached capacity one night following a gold medal win for that country, only Dutch nationals were allowed inside. Freek de Wette, Heineken's international sports sponsorship coordinator and director of the house, recalls that Italians dressed in orange to squeeze past security, claiming to escort a footballer who wanted to remain undercover.
It's All About the Beer
"The Dutchies consistently throw the best party at the Olympics," says Iain Davidson, a 23-year-old Australian who also visited the Dutch house during the Sydney Olympics. "And I mean this year -- this year is extreme," he says, gawking up at the vaulted exhibition hall ceiling. Onstage, Dutch popstar Jans Smit croons; later, DJ Ronald will blast techno beats.
The revelers include eight tall, lithe Dutch guys in orange cowboy hats, bug-eye sunglasses and orange silky shirts they had tailor-made in Bangkok, slugging from plastic cups of Heineken. Guus Daanen, 23, makes anyone who approaches their circle kiss the group's mascot -- a beer-soaked stuffed bunny attached to another dude's neck with a string. Girls in orange dresses dance on platforms. A couple leaning against the wall is kissing -- violently. Twirling through it all is Caroline Edam, dressed as a sort of star-shaped Olympic mascot, her hands and feet making up four of its points, her head popping through the silky gold fabric. "I'm nothing official," she says. "This is just for fun."
"Being just one enormous beer hall is just not true," Netherlands Olympic Committee spokeswoman Nathalie Smeeman says of the house. "The IOC told us we are the best house, the best example." It's hard to disagree with the IOC's assessment, but it's also hard to say that this place -- despite the two more upscale cafes elsewhere in the expo hall -- doesn't feel like one giant beer hall, what with the Heineken brand emblazoned everywhere.
Medal-winning athletes ride up to the building in a neon-orange rickshaw -- embodying class separation -- but just off the dance floor is Crown Prince Willem, wearing an orange tie with white jeans. "Dutch people are very casual," says de Wette. "I mean, we all know why Holland's famous. For its freedoms."